The pearl diver first suspected his daughter would be ugly a week after she was born. Her infant features were so small and spread out that her face looked empty. His wife told him that all babies looked like that, and that her cheekbones would rise and her lips would fatten as she got older, but the pearl diver worried.
Whenever the diver found an exceptional pearl, he’d flick the oyster’s insides out with his pocket knife and slip the shell into his messenger bag. Then when he sat on the dock to eat lunch he’d run his finger under the shell, wondering how something so plain could produce something so pretty. At night, he’d arrange the shells on his daughter’s shelves, nestling them in each other like Russian dolls, and wonder if his daughter’s sparse, off-white room, where she played princess in her outgrown confirmation gown, was a place where she could grow beautiful. He knew that if his wife had stayed, she would have known what trinkets to put on the shelves to brighten the space. She would have known what shampoos and toothpastes a girl needed.
A week before her eighth birthday, the girl asked her father for a tutu, so she could be in the school’s talent show. The one she pointed out was spun from tulle as gray as rained-on spider webs. To buy it, the diver needed one thousand pearls by Monday in order to make an extra sell to the jewelry store.
Pearls were difficult to find that week. The water was so cloudy with newborn jellyfish that it was hard to see anything. When he dragged his buckets up they were filled with iridescent egg sacks, colored like the drippy moons in kindergarten paintings.
On his fifth dive, his bucket filled with white fabric that clung to his rubber suit like dandelion seeds on a child’s hem. He spread it on his boat. It was a wedding dress, slick with seafoam.
He wondered if the dress had been missing on the day of a wedding or if the bride had been missing from the honeymoon, crawling on her belly at the bottom of the ocean instead, starfish resting in her knotting hair, pink coral growing under her manicured nails. He had read stories to his daughter about discontent mermaids becoming human, failing their sea-witch-given tasks and then turning to seafoam, sentenced to be smashed against rocks for all eternity
He remembered the missing posters stapled on the dock posts, laminated, but tattered. Just a photo of a woman’s face, so he couldn’t see what she was wearing the day she had gone missing, but he remembered that the pearls in her hair were what the jeweler called “the perfect color” for bridal headdresses.
His wife had been wearing a calico dress the day she left. She wore it too much and it had grown stiff and felt rough in his hands.
He knew he should turn the dress over to the police, but the bodice was covered in fingernail-sized pearls, the exact size and color as the ones in the photo, whiter than his daughter’s confirmation dress, already drilled through, perfect for a sale.